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Geoff Calkins Wants To Celebrate Memphis

“When you’re happy, I always figured why roll the dice on greater happiness somewhere else. I was happy here and so here I’ve stayed for now 25 years.”

Brian Noe

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There are many similarities between newspaper columnists and sports radio hosts. They constantly search for interesting angles to accentuate their opinions. Both look for captivating stories to tell. The occasional, “Man, I really stepped in it,” is also a possibility. Geoff Calkins is a man who wears both hats as a writer and radio host. He has chronicled Memphis sports for more than two decades — formerly at The Commercial Appeal and currently for The Daily Memphian. He also hosts The Geoff Calkins Show weekdays on 92.9 ESPN.

Geoff Calkins - The Daily Memphian

Geoff tells entertaining stories about Hubie Brown, Jason Williams the pen thief, and a tuba playing bet payoff in our discussion below. He also shares an intelligent view about chasing dreams.

As a writer with decades of experience, Geoff is obsessed with word choice. I’m not as magniloquent as Mr. Calkins, but his presence in Memphis certainly hasn’t been fugacious. Unfortunately, photosynthesis doesn’t fit here, so it looks like this is my intro stopping point. I hope you enjoy the interview.

Brian Noe: Is there more pressure writing words that don’t go away, or speaking words without having the ability to go back and edit yourself?

Geoff Calkins: I feel more pressure writing words that don’t go away. I’m always struck by how the things in print for whatever reason are held to a higher standard. Honestly I’m looser with what I say on the radio. In some ways that can get you in trouble. I’ll say things that I would not write. That’s just true; that I’m not as well reported, there are more theories, and more bouncing things off.

I would say there’s more pressure to write words that will not go away. When I’m writing a column, I think about every word. I’m obsessed with words. Word choice matters to me deeply when I write a column. When I talk on the air, I do my best. I try to find the right word, but there are so many words that you can’t sit there and sweat over every single one. It’s a very different enterprise.

BN: Does it feel liberating to be on the air compared to stressing over each word of a column? 

GC: Talking is easier than writing. Writing is hard. It just is. It’s like putting bricks together in a way. They all have to fit together just right in that line, but then the whole structure has to work too. You have to think ‘Okay, how am I going to start this? What comes next? What’s the perfect word here? Oh, that’s not quite working, let me try another.’ When you’re talking on the air, you’re just being yourself, or a stylized version of yourself. The labor is not close.

When you work for a newspaper — now I’m with an online newspaper — the job is just a wonderful job of going out and talking to people. It’s just the best job in the world because you have this freedom to go talk to anyone you want about anything you want. The reporting is fun. Being at events is fun. Getting to people’s stories and life stories is a great pleasure. But then there always comes this moment where you sit down at the computer and have to write. That is work in the way that nothing that I do on the radio feels like work. The next two hours of writing, that is hard work of the sort like writing a paper in college. That process is more difficult than anything we do on the radio.

BN: What is your 60-second resume that led to where you are now?

GC: I’m someone who always wanted to be a sports writer who took a detour into the law because he thought it was more respectable, and subsequently realized it was a mistake. I was a tremendous law student, but I was not a great lawyer. I was a very unhappy lawyer. At age 30, I said I’m going to try this again. I did journalism before; I had worked for the Miami Herald one summer, and I had worked for People magazine one summer in college. Those were college jobs.

After I had been at the law firm for a couple of years I said you know I’m going to try it one more time. I’m not going to pretend I’m a news writer. I’m going to be a sports writer because that’s what I wanted to do when I was 12. I was a kid who was one of nine. I grew up outside of Buffalo. If my parents punished me, they would take away my sports page reading privileges. They’d take away The Buffalo News and the Buffalo Courier-Express. That’s what I wanted to do when I was 12 and I just lost track of that because of money and prestige and all of that. I ended up unhappy and so I tried again and it worked.

BN: What other stops did you have before getting to Memphis?

GC: I wrote 300 newspapers and the only one who hired me was The Anniston Star down in Alabama. A guy named Joe Distelheim had been the sports editor in Detroit and was now the managing editor at Anniston. He hired me to do a 10-week internship covering high school sports for 225 a week. At the time I was making six figures as a young lawyer. Back then six figures met something, but I did it. I did two years there.

A guy named Fred Turner in Fort Lauderdale hired me to be the Marlins beat writer. He took a ridiculous chance on me to do that. I was not cut out to be a baseball beat writer, but I was having fun in a way that I never was as a lawyer. In Anniston I was having fun. I loved covering high school football games on a Friday night and Auburn on a Saturday. I was having a blast in a way that I just never was as a lawyer.

Fort Lauderdale was fun and then they took a chance on me here. I had only been a sports writer for four years when they gave me the column job in Memphis, which is a big chance that The Commercial Appeal took on me.

Now I was older because I didn’t start until I was 30, so I was 34. I don’t think I thought I’d stay here forever. In many ways Memphis is like Buffalo in that they’re sort of underdog places but a real strong sense of place and self. I fit here. I was happy. When you’re happy, I always figured why roll the dice on greater happiness somewhere else. I was happy here and so here I’ve stayed for now 25 years.

City guide — get all shook up in Memphis | Travel | The Times


BN: Did you ever have a moment in journalism school or when you went from six figures to 225 where you were like, “What am I doing?” Did that ever pop in your head?

GC: Yes. What I made for The Anniston Star was not sustainable. I would not have stayed in journalism if I was going to make 225 a week working in a small town in Alabama. As much as I liked Anniston, if that was where I was going to end up, I would have gone back to being a lawyer and said I’ll watch sports in my spare time and I’ll buy season tickets with my money.

I do think that one of the keys with people who want to do this for a living is to take a shot at it, but there is a certain amount of luck and a certain amount of ability that you have to have to make it to a level where this is both satisfying and where you can pay your bills. I’m not an idiot. I would not have stayed as a sports writer for 225 a week forever. I just wouldn’t have.

I tell people whether they want to do radio or print journalism, I tell them to give it a shot because you’re going to kick yourself if you don’t. If that’s what you really, really, really want to do. But be self-aware enough that after you’ve done it for a few years, to figure out if you have what it takes to get to a place in the industry where you’ll be happy because it’s really hard. Not everyone will make it. To me it’s not unlike someone who wants to move to L.A. and try to be a star. I’m not saying we’re stars but I think it’s become kind of a crapshoot like that.

You move to L.A., you give it a shot, and if you make it, great, if not, go be an accountant. Give yourself five years or 10 years, but you don’t have to work washing dishes for 30 years chasing your dream. Maybe I’m too much of a pragmatist. I’m enough of a dreamer to think you have to give it a shot, but I’m enough of a pragmatist to think that at some point you have to realize that sports journalism in whatever form may not be how you’re going to find your greater satisfaction or happiness.

BN: What’s the best advice you got as a journalist and what’s the best advice you got as a sports radio host?  

GC: The best I got as a journalist, there’s no substitute for making the next call or for being there. Just always make the next call. When you’re reporting a story and you can make three calls instead of two, make the third call. It’s stunning how often the third call is when you get the exact quote or the exact tip or whatever else that you need. And be there; actually a young journalist was asking me recently how to develop contacts and sources. The first thing I said was to show up. Be at everything. Be at every practice. Be at every Zoom call. Make sure they know that you’re serious and that you take your craft seriously. You’re covering people who take their craft very seriously, so you should take it as seriously. To me that’s the most important thing in journalism.

In terms of sports radio, Brad Carson, who’s our program director, is always urging us to get to the point quickly. I can meander a little bit. I think that was useful. There was someone early on who told me that a radio show is like staging a Broadway production every single day, that it’s not just yammering away about the events of the day. From the beginning to end, it is a production and we can’t craft it with the care and the months of preparation each day that they do in putting on a Broadway show, but in the end we are presenting something to people. Whatever it is — entertainment, opinion, interviews, laughter — to think hard about what exactly you want to present to people every day.

BN: We all know how much Ja Morant means to the Grizzlies, but beyond that, what does he mean for your jobs?

GC: There’s not much more fun in either print or on radio than celebrating wins, celebrating your town, your team, celebrating together. I grew up listening to the Buffalo Sabres. The Bills didn’t win much so I thought more of the Sabres at the time. They had a show called the Fourth Period. Ted Darling was the voice of the expansion Sabers at the time. After a win, I was the 11-year-old kid in bed listening to the Fourth Period because you just want to relive it. Ja Morant is going to give this city and all of us who covers sports a lot of moments that people are going to want to relive. He already has. We’ll see where it goes.

Things can go badly for Rookies of the Year. Anthony Davis, he wasn’t Rookie of the Year actually, but he didn’t work out and in the end he forced his way out of New Orleans. There are no guarantees, but it appears that he’s going to give us the kind of superstar that certainly at the professional level this town has never had. At the college level we had it, but it’s fleeting.

We had a year of Derrick Rose. We had two years of Penny Hardaway. We’ve had fleeting tastes of a superstar. We haven’t had a decade of a superstar ever in Memphis. Ja could be that. When you can just come in and celebrate with the city, be an outlet for that celebration, radio doesn’t really get more fun than that.

The year of Ja Morant - Grizzly Bear Blues

BN: It probably means you don’t have to play your tuba outside of the arena though, right?

GC: [Laughs] Where did you hear that story?

BN: [Laughs] I was doing crack research on you before this interview. Can you tell that story? It’s a great story, man.

GC: In the early days of the Grizzlies, they were starting another season. They were 0-9 or whatever they were. The previous year they had started — I’m making up these numbers — something like 0-13. So you run out of things to say about losing teams. I said if this team gets to 0-13, I’ll play Christmas carols on my tuba outside of the Pyramid. This was back when they were in the Pyramid.

Sure enough, they lose, they lose, they lose and we get to the fateful game. I referred to them in my column again. At this point the pressure is building. They were playing the Golden State Warriors and the head coach, I forgot who it was, printed out my column and put it on the seats of the Warriors’ bench before the game to further inspire their team to victory.

I remember Antawn Jamison hit a 3 and said start warming up that tuba. I had to play Christmas carols on my tuba outside of the Pyramid. But what I did was, I called the tuba player for the Memphis Symphony and I got another two dozen tuba playing friends and we had a little tuba Christmas outside of the Pyramid. It was fun. 

BN: What’s a memorable story of a player or coach that either ripped you or complimented you for your work?

GC: Okay, well on the bad side was when Jason Williams stole my pen in the locker room. Jason Williams came after me after a playoff game. Mike Miller had to peel him off of me. The audio of Jason is, “You ain’t writing nothing, homeboy.” Actually we use that clip of Jason saying that to start my radio show every day, as if by taking my pen he could stop me from writing something. He later returned to the Grizzlies and they had a little press conference. I put 20 pens in my pocket, so when I walked up the first thing he saw was me with 20 pens. He got fined $20,000 for that though, so it was an expensive pen. Then Calipari I would say. John Calipari hated me. Those are the two.

You know who was great was Hubie Brown. Hubie Brown came here at a time when his career as a coach was supposed to be over. People mocked Jerry West a little bit for the hire. It seemed very unusual for a young team to bring Hubie out of mothballs, but it was really fun. It was a fun few years and Hubie won Coach of the Year. Here’s a guy, every single press conference of his was a tutorial. It was just wonderful. Memphis kind of fell in love with him and his sort of grandfatherly ways.

Hubie, probably more than anyone else, went out of his way to thank me for the way I covered him. Given that he is such a pro, I think that’s why that one sticks in my mind. For Hubie, who knows more about basketball than I would ever think of knowing, for him to thank me for the way I covered him was particularly meaningful.

BN: Is there anything that you would like to accomplish or experience before you retire?

GC: Not really. I’ve covered great events. I think the most fun was the Olympics. I’ve covered eight Olympics and that’s plenty. They’re just a total blast to cover. Super Bowls and Masters and all of that stuff, but to me the fun part was always to be connected to a community, to be one of the voices in a community.

I wanted to be Larry Felser. Larry Felser was the columnist in Buffalo for The Buffalo News that I grew up reading. When I was a 12-year-old kid, I wanted to be Larry Felser. In a way I’ve become that in Memphis. Because of the state of newspapering, there won’t ever be another sports columnist that can have the reach that sports columnists of the past had in Memphis. I don’t just mean me; I just mean everyone who preceded me. The job has changed, but I got to be that for the better part of two decades. 

We Want Marangi: Walking With Larry Felser

Now I’ve gotten to transition and to be part of doing it differently on a radio show where the conversation is more intimate and there’s more dialogue. You actually are talking to the community. The fun part is being a part of a community and I’ve been able to do that. I just want to keep doing that for a while.

It would be nice for Memphis to win a championship. Memphis has come close. To get back to the Final Four and to have no Mario Chalmers shot or to have Ja carry this team to an NBA championship. But I don’t need that for me to feel like I’ve had fun with this. It’s been a blast.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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